There are real consequences of the ideologies held by our nation’s leaders. Religious belief has practical implications when it is held by people in positions of power. So it is that Sarah Palin’s foundations in a religious movement that denies the reality of biological evolution through natural selection would be more than just an eccentric embarrassment for educated Americans. They would have a devastating impact on Americans’ lives.
Last week, Sarah Palin gave her very first, and possibly only, policy speech of the 2008 campaign. It was a speech on government policy for children with disabilities. The idea behind the speech was that, because Palin has been the mother of a disabled child for a few months, she is an expert on the subject. It’s a claim as ridiculous as the idea that a person who joined the Army as a private a few months ago is qualified as an expert on military affairs.
Palin’s ignorance was showing throughout the speech, but was particularly glaring at one moment when she spoke dismissively about fruit fly research. Palin complained that government money spent on scientific research was a waste, saying, “You’ve heard about some of these pet projects they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not!”
Sarah Palin seems to think that fruit fly research is a joke, but anyone who paid attention in high school science class knows better than that. Fruit fly research has been at the core of genetics research for decades and continues to be an essential tool in understanding human genetic diseases. Human genetic diseases include Down Syndrome, the disease that Sarah Palin’s infant son suffers from. Through the insights it provides into genetics, fruit fly research also delivers information that can be used to combat disabilities that are not primarily genetic in origin.
The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster is an excellent tool for scientific research, especially in genetics, because it has a short generation span, allowing researchers to track patterns in inheritance over relatively short periods of time. A paper published in the journal Science, and archived by the National Institutes of Health, explains, “The fly Drosophila melanogaster is one of the most intensively studied organisms in biology and serves as a model system for the investigation of many developmental and cellular processes common to higher eukaryotes, including humans.”
The fruit fly’s usefulness has been recently increased by efforts like the Berkeley Drosophila Genome Project and FlyBase to describe and make available for research the entire genome of the fruit fly. Research over the last five years has provided insights into a huge range of medical problems that lead to developmental disabilities in children, ranging from pharmaceutically-induced birth defects to autism and compulsive disorders.
Of course, the scientific advances in dealing with children’s disabilities that have been achieved through fruit fly research are all dependent upon the basic understanding that inheritance and biological evolution are natural, not supernatural, processes. Sarah Palin is rooted in a religious movement that believes scientific theories of biological evolution to be the work of the Devil.
Yes, to someone who doesn’t have any understanding of biology and the scientific research into developmental disabilities, fruit fly research sounds, well, fruity. Sarah Palin, however, was trying to pass herself off as some kind of expert on disabilities in her speech last week. America’s children cannot afford to have a person a step away from being President of the United States who believes that she can put on the identity of a scientific expert like a Halloween costume, or like an outfit bought for her at Saks Fifth Avenue.